Tier 3

music / / poetry / / philosophy / / -ology by Nick Courtright

Band Interview: Doug Martsch of Built to Spill

This interview appeared on the Austinist on February 29, 2008.

Alright, so Built to Spill is one of the greatest, most influential, and most acclaimed bands of the past fifteen years. There’s really no way around it. And for those of you who are a little late to the love-in, here’s a very small sample of some of the things that have been said about them:

“A band whose talent and proficiency at times seem[s] boundless.” –Pitchfork Media

“Flawless.” –Trigger Magazine

“In short, he’s a talent more people ought to know about.” –Rolling Stone, on Doug Martsch

“Better than getting laid, finding God and winning the lotto combined.” –San Francisco Weekly, just last week when discussing their live performance

So when a band like this comes to Stubb’s, as they do on March 2nd (along with famed Nirvana influences Meat Puppets, as well as Helvetia) you should pay attention. And that’s exactly what we did, to the point that we arranged a conversation with BTS frontman and fearless mastermind, Doug Martsch, a man whose honesty and candor proved as engaging as his music.

Back when Built to Spill first started coming out with albums, getting “big” in quotation marks, the music industry was a lot different, built around radio conglomerates, big time record labels, and word of mouth, but now everything’s downloading and blogging and MySpace. As someone who’s seen both sides of the shift, what do you think of the way the music industry is now compared to how it used to be?

I’ve never paid too much attention to it, but I think it’s cool that people can share music. But to me, these record companies? I don’t feel bad for them at all. They argue that the artists are going to suffer and stuff but I think they’re full of shit. I think they’re just worried about themselves. I don’t think they care about the artists. And the artists will do fine, there are ways to sell your music, and big deal if you don’t sell your music? Who cares if the artists don’t have mansions and shit, you know? Why shouldn’t the artists just make music in their free time and just have regular jobs like anyone else? If you wanna make music you can go tour—there’s no way that they can get into your show for free. These record companies just dominated for so long they’re just scrambling, and I don’t feel bad for them at all.

It was the establishment and now they realize they’re not necessary anymore, so they’re trying to stop it at all costs.

Yeah, and they abused their position. They totally milked people, they milked the public. They charged people way more than they ever needed to for records. You can’t feel bad for them.

You see a lot more bands nowadays with MySpace campaigns, they don’t have a record label at all. They just give the music away for free and then everyone goes to their shows and that’s how they make their money.

There you go—that seems to make a lot more sense. Seems like music is something that should be free. Shows—I understand you have to pay so the band can keep doing it. But that just makes more sense, that’s more of a natural kind of economic situation. So much of our lives in this world and this country, so many problems in this world are based on this false economy, this capitalism is just out of control. People doing things only to make money. The record industries, they put out so much shit. They shove shit down people’s throats. Just because they can.

It’s all about money, how much money you put behind it. You get Phil Collins and stuff. In a world where the music speaks for itself the eighties would’ve looked a whole lot better than they did. The radio would’ve sounded a lot better than it did.

I don’t know, talking too much shit about Phil Collins…. He might come after you.

(Laughs) Oh yeah?

Yeah, I hear he chases down people who disrespect.

Is that right? Oh shit. But I think I fly under the radar. There are a lot more famous people making fun of Phil Collins than me.

You touched on capitalism in this country, and some of the singles you’ve released lately have an increased attention to reggae and political endeavors—you’ve probably got some pretty good opinions on this whole Presidential election business. What are you feeling about it?

I’m not too excited about the prospects, but I never expected to be. I would support Dennis Kucinich all the way. That guy’s right on. Ralph Nader or something. But what we’re stuck with? My opinion right now is, “Whose ugly face and horrible voice do I want to have to deal with?” Barack Obama is hands down the least offensive person so far, but he’s starting to get on my nerves a bit, and as a President I’m sure I’ll hate him. But Hillary is scary and McCain is insane.

Yeah, this country’s got a long way to go before they’ll elect somebody like Kucinich.

Too bad the truth isn’t taken very seriously in this world. Hillary and Obama are just going to try to out-rightwing each other to get into the White House. That’s not fun.

Seeing Bush leave is going to be awesome—I’m not going to take away from that.

To shift back to music a little bit, I read that for you playing the guitar wasn’t therapy. I was wondering what the guitar is to you, what your relationship with it is?

I guess I picked it up because I grew up on rock and roll and it’s the rock and roll instrument. I don’t practice. Ever. I pick up the guitar just to work on things, to write songs, to sing, goof around a little bit. I’ve never been a practicer at all.

I think I’ve barely scratched the surface on the instrument, too. I still learn things all the time. And forget things. Having two other guitar players in the band has made it a lot easier on me, takes some pressure off of me, makes me feel like I don’t have to…

Be the hero?

Yeah, play guitar solos that are good—I can just play, like, shitty ones and let them play the good ones.

Tell me everything you could possibly imagine telling me about the new album.

Well, we have some songs from the last record that didn’t make it on, and then some things that have been written since then, a few things that are still unfinished that I’m trying to get finished up in the next couple weeks here. As far as I can tell, there’s kind of a lot of ballads, conventional sort-of pop songs, I’m not really sure what will become of it. Some of it we’ve played a lot but has to be reworked. It’s all pretty up in the air right now. But from what I can tell, it’s going to be more of a melodic kind of pop record. It’s stuff that I’ve written mostly, maybe all of it is stuff I’ve written and brought to everyone, as opposed to the last record or Keep It Like a Secret where a lot of the stuff came out of jams.

Do you have any idea how many tracks might make it?

You know, there’s maybe thirteen or fourteen potential songs, but I want to keep it short. I like old records that are forty-five minutes or so. To me, the strength of the whole record is more important than putting as much stuff as you can fit on it.

I’ve seen all these wacky rumors about a Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, and Love as Laughter covers collaboration. Is there any truth to that at all?

There’s kind of truth to it. Isaac [Brock, of Modest Mouse] approached me about it, everyone covering each other’s songs, and it was in a magazine or something. Isaac called me and told me he didn’t leak it to the press, but somehow someone found out. But then we talked about it a little more, and I told him, and I guess Sam Jayne [of Love as Laughter] told him, that we weren’t really psyched about covering each other’s songs, but we were open to the idea of some kind of collaboration, that that did sound cool.

So maybe somewhere down the road, if there’s ever a time where all of us are not too busy doing other things, we might try to book some studio time and everyone go in there and fuck around. And somehow if we all come up with something interesting…

You once made a comment that you’d be interested in writing an album that was just one fifty minute song. Does that seem totally fucking crazy to you now, or do you still want to have that one magnum opus?

That idea’s always sort of intriguing. I imagine it being a song that goes through a bunch of different passages, basically twenty songs stuck together type of thing. I’m still interested in that, in some way. I couldn’t guarantee any quality or anything like that.

You also said something about if a song it eight minutes long, it’s not like writing two or three three-minute songs, it’s like writing ten of them.

Exactly, but that’s changed a lot. If I did a fifty-minute song on Pro Tools it wouldn’t be so bad. With Pro Tools it wouldn’t be too hard to pull that sort of thing off.

But in a way that makes the whole thing sort of unappealing. Knowing that something has come off of Pro Tools versus knowing it came off of tape gives me a completely different feeling about the thing, even if it sounds just the same. Just knowing that someone worked this thing out, that it’s all done from scratch. Like sometimes people with Pro Tools, they’ll take a chorus and just cut and paste the same chorus over and over again. To me, maybe I’d miss it and not notice it, but if I knew about it, I be like, “that sucks.”

Yeah, I’ll go to a show and realize that a really beautiful record was all just loops.

Totally. This guy who we’re recording our record with, he’s recorded some of the old reggae guys. This one guy who’s come in for a few sessions, he’s this sixty year old reggae drummer. He’ll come in and play for just a few minutes and be like, “okay, just loop that.” The job becomes so much easier now. Kind of weird to hear someone from that generation just giving in to the technology. Then he’ll just sit there and smoke weed and listen to everyone else work the rest of the day.

Built to Spill [Official] [MySpace]


1 Comment»

  devonreed wrote @

Please check out the song that Doug performed for the soundtrack to The Bigtop, streamable here.

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